What if Turkey buys the S-400 from Russia?
On the anniversary of the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, news broke that Ankara had agreed to pay Moscow $2.5 billion to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. While the deal is yet to be finalized, its completion will have significant consequences for Turkey-NATO ties.
Located in a troubled neighborhood, Turkey has long sought to enhance its strategic defensive capabilities in line with modernization plans for its armed forces.
In this regard, NATO has taken steps to augment Turkey’s defense capabilities, even though these measures have fallen short of meeting Ankara’s demands. Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States have all previously contributed with missile batteries. Currently, the only ones that remain on Turkish soil are Spain’s Patriot and Italy’s Aster SAMP/T batteries, both of which are under NATO’s command and which are plugged into the alliance’s air defense system.
In the meantime, Turkey has not abandoned its quest to purchase an air defense system, considering non-NATO options as well.
In 2013, Turkey announced that a Chinese firm had won the bid to supply a defense system. However, the $3.4 billion deal was shelved entirely in 2015 as a result of strong reactions from NATO members, primarily the U.S., due to questions of security and the compatibility of the weaponry with NATO infrastructure.
At the time, what made the Chinese tender preferable for Turkey - aside from a more satisfactory price tag - was that the agreement involved technology transfer, a point which NATO allies have long avoided providing in their contracts. From Ankara’s point of view, this unwillingness to share know-how on military defense systems violated the spirit of what it meant to be an ally, duly motivating Turkey to further invest in domestic arms production.
Today, S-400 missiles are considered some of the most advanced long-range air defense systems in the world. If the deal is concluded, Turkey will become the first NATO member country to purchase the system. And contrary to some claims, there is no rule within the NATO Treaty prohibiting member states from procuring non-NATO weapons.
Turkey reportedly aims to use the S-400 missile system without integrating it into NATO’s infrastructure, just like Greece did for its S-300 missile system deployed in Crete, as a part of the deal with Greek Cypriots.
Instead, Turkey plans to make its S-400 interoperable with NATO systems through IFF coding (friend and foe identification program) to be provided by Aselsan, a Turkish defense industry firm.
Still, experts doubt the viability of this endeavor, considering both the technical difficulties and the economic costs of using the system as a standalone.
Some argue that Turkey may be using the S-400 deal as a means to enhance its political leverage to obtain better bids from NATO countries. Notably, the Italian/French joint venture Eurosam missile system was also on Ankara’s shopping list in addition to the Russian S-400. And in fact, the three countries have just announced a preliminary agreement on Turkey’s purchase of the Eurosam missile system. Will Turkey purchase both systems or renege on the Russian one? Stay tuned.
At a time when Russia’s expansion of its A2/AD bubble has already threatening NATO’s southeast flank, clinching such a deal with a NATO nation would represent a crowning achievement for Russia, which is seeking to undermine the Western alliance’s cohesion and security.
The timing of these reports about the S-400 purchase is also meaningful, as the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, provided an opportunity for the Turkish government to jot down a list of its friends and foes both at home and abroad. Lukewarm backing of their NATO allies disappointed both Turkish officials and the public at large. In contrast, Russia was among the first to condemn the coup and offer support. It is possible to say that this sense of betrayal has pushed Turkey closer to Russia.
Although Turkish policy makers have often reiterated that Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia does not constitute an alternative either to NATO or the European Union, the actual message behind the possible purchase of the S-400 is that Turkey indeed has alternatives.
That said, this one step toward Russia may drive Turkey further away from the West than anyone expects.